Recently the Malaysian state of Penang became the first in the country to ban the consumption of shark fin at official functions. The agreement was signed by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, as well as several non-governmental organizations including Penang Chinese Town Hall and the Association of Building Contractors of Malaysia. The decision is being hailed by conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund as a landmark event that may set a precedent for other Malaysian states.
Penang’s State Welfare, Caring Society and Environment committee chairman Phee Boon Poh was present at the signing, and confirmed that the ban was put into effect to raise awareness of unsustainable shark finning practices. He also commented that studies have proven that shark fin adds no nutritional value to the soup for which it is most commonly used, and that “serving shark fin dishes is only a display of opulence.” Currently, Malaysia is among the world’s top 20 shark-catching nations, according to a report by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. In 2012, the country was responsible for importing almost 1,900 metric tons of shark fins, at a value of approximately RM19.5 million ($5 million USD). It is thought that of the 63 shark species known to inhabit Malaysian waters, 10 are on the brink of extinction.
Penang represents only a small area of Malaysia, a country that includes 13 states and three federal territories. However, the state is famous for its Chinese, Indian and Malay restaurants, and is often referred to as the nation’s culinary capital. If Penang decides to drop shark fin from its menus without impacting its cultural heritage, perhaps other Malaysian states will be inspired to do the same. Currently, shark products remain legally available in Penang’s restaurants and markets, but the decision by government officials and industry figureheads to ban theses dishes is a major step forward. In China, a similar decision by the government to ban shark fin from state functions as part of a crackdown on political extravagance has since sparked a significant decline in shark-fin sales.
Although shark fin is primarily used as an ingredient in Asian cuisine, nations worldwide are guilty of contributing to the trade. Malaysia is joined on the list of the top 20 shark-catching nations by the United States, Thailand, New Zealand and Mexico, while the four worst shark-catching nations are Spain, India, Taiwan, and neighboring Indonesia. Together, the top 20 nations account for almost 80 percent of the total reported global shark catch, which is thought to average 73 million sharks every year. Such shocking numbers generate equally shocking statistics, and scientists now believe that more than 90 percent of all sharks have disappeared from the world’s oceans in the last century. Of the 465 shark species classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one third are considered threatened with extinction.
With statistics as depressing as these, the future of the world’s shark populations can often seem dark. And yet, positive actions like those undertaken in Penang provide a flicker of hope that there may yet be light at the end of the tunnel.